The Milford is the most famous of New Zealand’s so-called Great Walks and I can confirm that it involves a considerable amount of walking (54km) and is definitely a great experience. But whether, like me, you consider it to be the best thing ever might depend on your previous experience, your personal circumstances at the time of undertaking it, how much you paid (independent walking is significantly cheaper than the guided walks), and what weather you got.
If you’re planning on doing it and haven’t done any research, I recommend you keep it that way and even skip my account below. The walk was wondrous for me because it felt like a true adventure in the sense that I was out amongst the elements, but also because I had virtually no knowledge of what lay ahead each day – and had never done anything similar. I would recommend, however, that you read my list of gear at the bottom, based on what I did and did not take.
I was very fortunate in that my dad paid for the whole trip (THANKS AGAIN!) and my mum even paid for meals so it was like winning an all-expenses holiday! And we were all fortunate that we got great weather.
When I say we, I mean the 30-odd people that you set off with and with whom you share the three huts. But though you start out at the same time, having been delivered to the wilderness by the same boat, it’s fairly easy to find yourself walking alone – if you so desire. Each hut is slightly supervised by a park ranger and the three we had were completely different examples of solid southern characters: very likeable, with good stories and tips. The bunks are grabbed on a first-come, first-serve basis and you get to know your fellows fairly well by the end.
Overall, I think that only the worst of attitudes, or weather, could diminish the pleasure to be gained from trekking through such beautiful, primordial landscapes: from lush rainforest dripping with moss, to vertical valleys intersected by avalanches of grey boulders, and frequently alongside a river that was one moment a fast-flowing roar and the next gliding silently as dawn.
The path was often a trail of sandy stones, bordered by grass or flowers; on the steeper sections it was a series of strewn rocks, and sometimes it was a wooden walkway.
In the middle of the walk is MacKinnon pass, which was the highpoint geographically and also psychologically as the soaring mountain peaks gradually revealed themselves in a haze of wind-swept cloud, the path weaving through tussock grass, while Mt Cook lilies waved and – at the very top – Keas hopped.
The walk runs from the tip of Lake Te Anau to the bottom of Milford Sound and neither end is inhabited; there is just a jetty at the beginning and a shelter at the end. We stayed the previous night in Te Anau, which gave us time to acclimatise and buy some extra clothes. But if you were coming in from further afield that morning, I’m sure it would be fine as the first day’s hike is only 1.5 hours.
The following three days were more like six hours’ walking and we caught a deluge on the second half of the last day. It was brilliant to see and feel and hear the rainforest in its favourite state but I can’t imagine how it would have been to come into the huts each afternoon like a bunch of drowned rats. In fact, the hut on the third night was absolutely sweltering and some of us went for a swim in a tranquil stretch of river, though the swarms of large sandflies made it uncomfortable to stay outside for long.
At the end of the walk, you catch another boat to the small settlement of Milford and, luckily for us, my father had the foresight to book a room at the Milford Lodge, so we didn’t have to wait for a bus and then endure the ride, unshowered, and possibly cold and wet as most of our group were. I would highly recommend you do the same!
What to take:
- A comfortable, adjustable pack, no more than 15 kg. Mine was just under 7kg and did up around the waist so that I could carry most of the weight on my hips, not shoulders. But then my mum managed with a regular back pack so that’s possible too. The park rangers said it was idiocy to have a pack weighing more than 20kg, as some people do.
- Comfortable, waterproof, well-treaded shoes. I have some high-top Salomons that feature the phrases “Gore-Tex”, “sensifit”, “contagrip” and “powerband” – and they were excellent. Also take a light pair of shoes/sandals/jandals to wear around the huts, or at the end in case your boots have been soaked.
- Sunscreen, insect repellant, plasters, toothbrush, toothpaste, wet wipes (there are no showers so you won’t be needing shampoo, or even a towel), ibuprofen in case you hit a sore spot, and a torch.
- Light trousers, water proof trousers, tights, a long singlet, a polyprop long-sleeve top, a t-shirt, a windbreaker/puffer vest, a rain poncho, many socks, a sun hat, a warm hat, gloves and a polyprop scarf + sleeping clothes, ear plugs and eye mask, a swim suit and a fresh top to wear at either end.
- A good book. I thought I’d just meditate on the bush or something but there is a lot of downtime at the huts and you do not have the option of walking on further, if you’re feeling up to it, as groups are ushered through constantly and you must stay where you are booked to stay.
- Porridge with nuts and/or raisins is excellent for the morning and we bolstered it with Fresh As freeze-dried fruit and even some dehydrated rice, plus milk made from powder.
- Lunch is whatever you can eat on the go: some people had sandwiches and bread and pre-made pasta; I just nibbled on oaty bars and nutbars and crackers. My recommendation would be to take some wholemeal crackers and plain roasted almonds, as you might get tired of processed sugary options.
- For dinner we had some dehydrated monstrosities that called themselves “Thai Chicken” and “Lamb Fettuccine” but I would avoid these. Instead I would eat porridge again, or maybe couscous (plain or flavoured). Even pasta with packet soup might be an improvement on those meals – but it’s a pity to be surrounded by pure nature and putting such artificial things into your body.
- A water bottle (of course) plus some varieties of tea or coffee, plus nice chocolate or something as a comfort treat. One couple had a bottle of pinot noir that they drank over two nights and that looked tempting too.
- A small pot to boil water for tea and cooking, a mug/small bowl and a spoon.
The final thing to bear in mind is that the track is rated “easy/medium” but I would say that it is, in fact, reasonably hard. You want to be quite fit and strong, and also quite brave, in case you have to pick your way down the emergency track in gale-force winds – as the group who came after us did. 10/10.